If there is one thing for which Southern Baptists long to be known it is evangelism. Concern for freedom to participate fully in cooperative world-wide evangelistic efforts provided the originating impulse for the denomination’s existence. In the language of the Preamble to the Constitution of the SBC, the “propagation of the Gospel” is the “one sacred effort” to which the energies of the whole denomination should be directed.
Through the 146 years since their beginning Southern Baptists have, for the most part, resisted the many temptations to minimize the great work of evangelism. Consequently, zealous efforts to reach as many people as possible with the gospel are etched into our denominational history. If the methods have at times been questionable, the goals have been commendable. Genuine compassion for lost souls and enviable evangelistic fervor have characterized these various efforts.
What have been the results? Southern Baptists are widely regarded as comprising the largest (not to mention wealthiest–140 million dollars budget; 3.5 billion dollars in assets) non-Catholic denomination in the USA. In 1990, Southern Baptist churches reported a total membership of more than 15 million. At first glance this is an impressive statistic. Closer inspection, however, reveals that this figure is nothing more than an inflated distortion of far less glowing reality.
Roy Edgemon thinks so. As Director of Discipleship Training for the Sunday School Board of the SBC, he is certainly in a position to know. Fortunately for Southern Baptists, Dr. Edgemon’s position of leadership in the denomination has not blinded him to the need to speak honestly and openly about our current membership mirage.
His address at the 1991 Louisiana Baptist Convention Evangelism Conference revealed some alarming trends. After lamenting the fact that only 50% of those who are identified as Southern Baptists can be described (even in the most charitable sense) as “active” members, Edgemon stated, “We are losing more people out the back door than any time in the history of our denomination.” Further, he cited the results of research which indicates that “in 1980 Southern Baptists had to baptize 2.6 persons to gain one resident member. Five years later they had to baptize 7.4 persons to gain one resident member. In 1989 we had to baptize 19.8 to get one resident member.”
The diminishing correlation between our baptism statistics and genuine church growth has become increasingly obvious even without the stark revelations of research analysis. The Sunday School Board reports that over the last several years Southern Baptists have added 35,000 members a year while watching their “non-resident inactive” roll swell by 55,000 a year. For some reason it seems that those we reach and bring into our churches are more likely to fall away than to persevere. Why is this?
The Apostle John directly addresses this issue in his first New Testament letter. Concerning those first-century church members who made a great start and then fell away he says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19). They went out because they were never truly in. As the rest of his letter makes abundantly clear, the profession of such people is false and their faith is empty. They are the stony-ground hearers Jesus describes. They make a great start — they “receive the word with joy.” But they eventually wither up — the root of the matter is not in them. (Mark 4:16-17).
Though cleverly devised, denominationally endorsed categories of membership may salve our consciences, the Bible offers no hope that people in such condition are at peace with God. They may have much evidence of their membership in our churches. But they will find no biblical evidence that suggests they are in Christ.
As long as the Church is in the world she will be plagued with the reality of false professors in her midst. Pity the local assembly that believes that church purity can be perfectly attained on this side of heaven. Such a perspective is biblically indefensible and will inevitably give rise to a legalistic, injurious administration of church order and government.
However, pity also the people who have been duped into believing that it is normal and acceptable for 50% of the membership to drop out completely from the life of the church. When desertion exceeds enlistment, evaluation of the means that are employed to gain new members is long overdue. Why do so many of our converts show no sign of spiritual life?
Roy Edgemon offers 2 primary reasons. First, he says: too much of our evangelism is “manipulative,” “shallow,” “abortive,” “evangelism without integrity.” Second: too many of our churches are concerned with “decisions rather than disciples.” The consequences are both frightening and indicting. Edgemon states, “I really believe we lose thousands of people who are going to die and go to hell, thinking they’re saved.”
This diagnosis is grave but indisputably accurate. And the only hopeful prognosis is one which envisions a return to a God-honoring, biblically defined evangelism. Modern evangelism’s methods as well as its message must be scrutinized in the light of the Scriptures, and contemporary church practice must be accordingly reconstructed.
The task will not be easy, quick, or painless. But it must be attempted. The glory of God and the integrity of His Kingdom demand it. The lost world has seen enough of the misguided, albeit sincere, religious huckstering of a truncated gospel at bargain-basement prices. Our churches have been blighted long enough with half-converted members who are comfortably deceived in their lostness.
May God never let us lose our zeal for evangelism. But may He be pleased to awaken us to the fact that zeal alone is not sufficient — it must be grounded upon the sure doctrinal foundation of biblical evangelism. If we long to see the kind of sound conversions that characterized the ministries of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, and our early Southern Baptist churches, then we must learn as did they to base our evangelistic message and methods on biblical doctrine. May those who look back and write our history be able to say with the inspired historian of the first century, “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).